The country was deep in the 1970s when an unlikely figure appeared on television screens to explain to America that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness. That figure was Bob Newhart, the mumbling comedian whose sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, tackled queer mental health in a particularly groundbreaking episode.
Like many nerdy gays, I’ve often heard the story of how the American Psychological Association decided in the early '70s to stop labeling all homosexuals as crazy. It was thanks to a group of rowdy activists who disrupted APA meetings for years, working in tandem with secret closeted gay therapists—there’s a fantastic episode of This American Life that dives deep into the story. But I wasn’t expecting to find Newhart, of all people, to humanize what must have seemed at the time like a mystifying change.
On the show, Newhart plays a psychiatrist with various goofy patients, and the 1976 episode “Some of my Best Friends Are…” shows him discovering that one of his patients is gay. That causes a bit of a crisis in a group therapy setting, with the casual homophobia of the time becoming unpleasantly apparent. But Bob also realizes that he’s internalizing some homophobia of his own—not exactly what you want to see from your therapist.
Over the course of the episode, Bob comes to realize just how backwards the old way of thinking, which labeled homosexuality as a sickness, was. It’s a strange topic for what was otherwise a fairly lighthearted show; only a few years before, the APA was rocked by protests and revelations and a contentious change in leadership around the issue. The old guard, led by backwards thinkers like Dr. Charles Socarides, held that queer people needed to be guided out of homosexuality; that gave license to all manner of bizarre “ex-gay” cures that, of course, only caused deep long-lasting harm.
But Socarides represented an outgoing ideology, and Newhart says as much on—and again I just have to shake my head in wonderment at this—a fun silly sitcom. Playing a TV doctor, he forcefully confronts his homophobic clients, telling them that he won’t see them if they can’t accept that there might be a gay person in a group setting.
Even today, in far more accepting times, it still feels oddly validating to hear a medical professional defend queer peoples’ right to exist. Obviously he’s not really a doctor, but he’s using language that was, at the time, brand new for real-life doctors. And it’s a reminder of just what a relief it is that those rowdy protesters stood up at APA meetings, decades ago, and demanded change.